Eyecatchers: A Day in the Life of a Fire Lookout

Back in June 2011, I wrote about my fondness for Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums, mentioning that it was Kerouac’s journey to the Pacific Northwest — to Washington State in particular, where he served as a fire lookout atop Desolation Peak in the Cascade Mountains — that inspired me to move here myself.

Well, today’s Eyecatchers installment is a very short film by Gary Yost, who, for the past two years, has been a volunteer fire lookout on Mt. Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco.

I found Yost’s video to be quite a beautiful glimpse of his experience doing this work, particularly thanks to his wonderful timelapse photography. The views from the mountain are absolutely stunning, and it seems clear that, though he is a volunteer, he is paid handsomely for the work he does, rewarded, not with money, but with the wonders of nature that surround him and the satisfaction of knowing that he’s helping to protecting this magnificent area.

And, I couldn’t help noticing just how different Yost’s experience is from the one Kerouac described in The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. Yost is shown driving his car and parking at the trailhead for a shift, the duration of which is not mentioned, but there are 30 volunteers who take turns covering shifts at the two running lookouts at Mt. Talmalpais, from mid-June through the end of the fire season.

Kerouac, on the other hand, spent the entire summer by himself in a drafty, wood-heated cabin, after a grueling, multi-day approach to the lookout via horseback. And, whereas Yost and the other Mt. Tamalpais lookouts have sweeping views of civilization, due to their proximity to San Francisco, Desolation Peak is smack dab in the middle of the North Cascade Range, with absolutely no civilization, other than a handful of other fire lookouts on neighboring peaks. The solitude was initially something Kerouac intentionally sought, as an opportunity to go deeper with the Buddhist meditation he was practicing at the time. But, it ultimately led to his disillusionment with and abandonment of Buddhism, very nearly drove him mad, and some would argue that it actually did.

Certainly, Yost finds some solitude in his work on Mt. Tamalpais, and he captures it beautifully in his film, but it’s very clear that he’s nowhere near in danger of losing his mind.

One thought on “Eyecatchers: A Day in the Life of a Fire Lookout

  1. The year I went and had a very social summer waiting tables at Grand Teton National Park, my sister chose the solitude of fire watching in a tower near Mt. Rainier. I might be able to do it, but I don’t think I would have had as much fun.

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